Casaubon's Book

How Much Work Is Small-Scale Farming?

Meg emails to ask me “How much work is small-scale farming, anyway?” I want to farm and I’m planning on trying it out over the summer as an intern, but what I’m worried about is not being able to keep up with everyone else. I’m healthy and reasonably energetic, but everyone makes it sound so hard! Should I even try?”

Well first of all, I think Meg is doing exactly the right thing in trying it out. The best way to understand whether you are suited to small-scale agriculture is to get some experience, idealy on several different small farms that do the kinds of things you want to do. Interning, WWOOFing, taking hands-on classes are good ways to get a sense of the scope of things.

The reason I would advise several farms is that the workload is quite variable based on what crops you raise, and also on your personality. Different approaches have different rush periods and different quite periods, and different people do things differently. Trying several farmers and several kinds of farming will help you get a sense of what is needed.

For example, livestock raising requires more day-to-day attention – you can’t go away for the weekend without finding someone to handle your chores, and realistically, it can be hard to find that someone. On the other hand, raising livestock can provide, in my experience, more remuneration with less effort than raising produce. In fact, our family does both, but it is helpful that given the right fence, livestock will harvest their own food – green beans just sit there until you pick them ;-).

Other factors matter too – do you live in or on the edge of an urban or suburban area? You may be managing a much smaller area with a greater profit margin due to the proximity of customers, but you’ll also have more pressure on your fences and on issues of appearance – you’ll need to keep up with things that those of us in rural areas can let go. If you live in the country, you have more freedom often to do things as you like, but it can be harder to make money.

What’s your personality? Do you see a leaning post and think “I’ve got to get out there today and fix that”, or do you think “That’ll hold another week or two.” Those who have to keep everything in fine repair and keep up with everything will do more work in some says, but will have the excitement of fewer sudden catastrophic systems failures, and spend less time looking for things in the general clutter, usually.

What tools do you want to use? How big or small do you want to go? What can you afford, and what scale are you imagining working on. A small urban farmer selling microgreens from a few beds and someone harvesting 12 acres of grapes will require very different tools – or, if operating with the same tools, will have very different workloads.

Also, is the workload even throughout the year? It rarely is in agriculture – if you milk cows, you’ll be doing much the same work every day of the year in some measure (not all), but if you sell Christmas trees and wreaths and raise pastured poultry, you’ll be operating on a very different schedule, with heavy workloads some parts of the year and comparative quiet in others. My own take on this is to aim for farm business products that spread out over the year, with a quiet period in early winter for rest.

How much labor can you count on from others? Family, friends, other interested parties? Sometimes volunteer labor can be deeply helpful, in other cases, it can be more work than not. The help of your 17 year old daughter maybe invaluable, or it might be not worth the effort if she mostly spends her time whining and eye rolling. Who will help, and how and how engaged are they?

How much energy are you willing to devote to working “smart” rather than hard? When we first started our CSA, I was in my late 20s and cheerfully willing to bust my behind all day long to get tomatoes from our rocky, cold soils – and it didn’t bother me that my CSA customers had been getting them from other farms for 2 weeks, because of our cold location. Over time, however, I realized that what I wanted was not to muscle my way through, but to adapt my farming to be more natural and less demanding – and the goats and herbs and vegetable seedlings I now sell are less work and more pleasure.

From my own experience, I find that farming is a lot of work – but much of it is so enjoyable that it doesn’t feel that way once you adapt to it. I look forward to large chunks of the year’s labors – and that’s probably the most important factor in feeling like you aren’t overwhelmed. That doesn’t mean a goat kid never comes on a day when I’d rather be doing something else, or I don’t have to spend a hot afternoon in the garden when I’d rather sit in the shade – of course, that’s part of it. But overwhelmingly, if you enjoy what you do, working hard is not onerous – it is enjoyable.

I do not wish to pretend that sometimes it is very hard, as when a physically demanding job has to be done late in the night or in terrible weather. Sometimes awful things happen – we lost a seemingly healthy kid recently for no apparent reason, and that’s the sort of disheartening thing that makes you want to give up. Sometimes it is frustrating, as when a run of problems hits, or when you realize you’ve been doing something the dumb way. There are plenty of moments when farming is very hard – much of it, however, is the same psychological hardness that comes from a disheartening period in any project, rather than sheer physical hardness.

It can be physically demanding and exhausting – but consider the fact that the average small farmer in the US is over 60 – it cannot be something that depends solely on physical strength. In the end, yes, there is physical work, but it is often possible to grow into that work, or to adapt that work to the strength and ability of your body.

What I love about it, what makes the endless work seem so tolerable is that it is always different – today I will spend my day making sure the does in heat get bred, a humorous and enjoyable project I always look forward to. A friend of mine visiting a few weeks ago commented “It looks like a frat-house here” – and frankly, breeding season provides a lot of amusement. We joke that we are spending our days watching “CNN” or “The Caprine Nookie Network.” Besides routine chores and the spreading of manure on some of the last garden beds, there’s not too much to do. This is the quiet season – we turn to domestic maintenence, to the spring cleaning that I never really do because by spring I’m busy starting seeds and taking cuttings. I’m enjoying seeing what is buried in the back closets (mostly, a few horrors have been found), and when I get tired, there’s wood to carry, trees to prune and goats to rotate around.

By January I’ll be sick of the quiet and longing to get my hands into some soil – I love to start seeds and nurture them along. in February the trays will be full and the plants will be poking up, the winter-stratified nursery beds covered with snow but gestating. We’ll breed our second group of goats then for year round milk, and dream of the summer’s kids. January and February will involve some cold days in the woods as well, cutting firewood from the downed trees of last year’s hurricane – work I truly enjoy.

In March we’ll tap our few maple trees and make syrup, and every windowsill and corner will be filled with plants. The delight of getting my fingers into the potting soil will have faded a bit, but still, every seedling is a hope of spring. We’ll have chicks in the brooder and the hens will be laying like mad, and hopefully, we’ll have cleaned out the winter barn, a project that takes several concerted days. We’ll be managing the last of the stored winter produce as well, preserving what goes mealy or soft, cleaning out and getting ready for the new to come.

By April we’ll be in the garden – we hope. Some years things start early, other years they run late. I’ll be selling seedlings and spring plants and forcing bulbs. The first herbs will be up and ready for tending, and the fruiting bushes will need attention. The kids will begin coming in April, and our nights will be interrupted for a bit, but the joy of new babies compensates. April can be a mad rush with kidding and planting – but some years it is so cold and wet that we mostly chafe and whine and rotate too many seedlings around one more time, waiting for spring.

In May it all rushes upon us and for eight to ten weeks, we push from dawn to dusk, racing outside at first light and working our bodies as long as we can. We fall into bed exhausted from planting and tending, the first early harvests, and all the rest. The first crop of hay comes in, fences must be moved regularly, everything is busting out all over, including us. It is tiring but glorious, and every day the world is more beautiful and we feel luckier to be part of it.

June too is part of the rush and race, some years more, some years less, depending on when spring decided to come to the northeast. Add to all the sowing and planting and transplanting and sales the fact that in June comes the first harvest and first preservation of herbs and berries (we have harvested morels, rhubarb and raspberry leaves already, but these hardly count).

In July things slow a little, except for the endless weeding and mowing, and the thrust of preservation. We do not put up our own hay (most of my neighbors sell hay), so July is a quieter month for us than for many here. There’s enough of a lull to even go away for a couple of days at the beginning of the month. Then comes the second round of babies and the fall garden rush which is always chancy – will hot dry days wither seedlings meant to feed us in winter? Still, there’s plenty of preserving to do – cucumbers, blueberries, peaches, etc…

August is the peak preserving month for us most years, and the rush to get everything done that should have been in past months before our fall responsibilities start, since farming is not our only work. By August we are done with summer, sick of planting, tired of the green beans that keep producing, and the challenge is not to give up to th weeds or to be sick of the corn on the third go-round. Summer has lost a little of its luster now, and fall is eagerly anticipated. By August much of the herb harvest is done except for the root crops, and must be preserved and put away. The goat babies are headed to new homes, and it is never wise to underestimate how much time customers will take up.

September is a new day – the planting is over, the harvesting goes on with new intensity. It is time to get ready for winter and it is hard not to think about how much hay and firewood and squash you will need. September is a time for lists of things to do – and for us, for celebrations as the Jewish holidays come in autumn.

By October most years it is cool enough to fill the root cellar and we are rushing to get everything preserved and under cover before winter comes (not this year, with the weird warm temps). It is time to do the last butchering cycle for the poultry and sell the last goats and cull rabbits so that the barns aren’t too crowded. Stacking firewood and loading in hay are big projects as well.

November is when we catch up, make gifts, begin breeding goats and managing stud service for others, moving fences for the last time and winterizing the barn. We always hope to get one more barn cleaning done in December before everything freezes and too much snow hits to allow us to get the wheelbarrows in and out. Everything must be winterized and the garden clean up, garlic planting and bulb planting drag us out on the last nice days.

December is time to face the house and ask “ok, what didn’t I do all last year.” In December and January we reorganize, paint and clean out, give away and get ready for the quiet.

There is of course, a permanent cycle – the daily chores, the daily maintenence of a home, the daily care of children, and this is something you can in some measure choose. A few chickens won’t much inconvenience anyone, and only houseplants is easier still. In our case we have chosen a life that requires much daily attention – many children, many animals, and we find it delightful for the most part.

In the end, the workload depends in large measure on how you see it – I can understand how someone might view a day in the woods in winter with a crosscut saw, or a night in the barn in summer covered with goat placenta as a day of hard labor. To me, the saw and the birds and the sounds and the sights of the bony bare trees are pleasures. It feels good to move after a December of too many latkes and too much sitting before a fire. Is it work? I can’t say when I’m having so much fun.

I can see how someone might find the mess and fuss of a night time kidding to be a disruption. To me, watching and waiting and seeing what will be born, tending my does in this time of birth, being ready to help if needed, even though I rarely am is a gift. When twins slip into the world, silvery, new and struggle up to nurse against a mother who washes them clean, I don’t mind the state of my sweatshirt or the loss of sleep – instead, I feel fortunate that I’ve chosen this life and these joys. It is not work I think of in those nights, but pleasure.

The gift of it – the day to day things to do, the cyclical ones is that they come around again and i have a chance to stick my fingers in the ground and feel the cool earth warming, or that I stand on my porch with a load of laundry watching the pheobes build their nest on my porch and smelling springtime in the air, watching a small child carry a newborn chick, the swing of the scythe through grass, that I take eggs and milk, chard and homemade goat cheese and bring forth quiche, that my morning begins with a warm goat and a stream of milk hitting a metal bucket, the cutting of basil, the harvesting of tomatoes, even the sometimes endless pureeing and canning…. Most of the time the work and the joy are indistinguishable and it is hard and good – and the good is what matters.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Mrs Woo
    December 15, 2011

    The best farmers are the ones who love it. And you’re right, for them it isn’t “work.” I live in farming country, have married into “century farm” farmers and they still farm (though they give up some of it) in their eighties. They have large acreage farms, though, with some sale crops, big equipment, and acres that are dedicated to cattle.

    We aren’t “farmers” in the real sense. Only a garden, fruiting trees, fruiting bushes and chickens, though we’re looking at the few acres near ours to expand to, and hoping to maybe get a bottle calf and hubby keeps pushing for milk goats. We have a large barn built with a lean-to which will be converted to animal areas as we acquire them, and a small fenced pasture. The larger part of the acreage is fenced but the fences there need repair and we’ll have that to attend to one day when we choose to expand beyond the chickens.

    Loved reading your description of this. I bookmarked you to “keep up” with you going forward.

  2. #2 Nicole
    December 15, 2011

    I would also suggest to Meg that unless she is very settled where she is, that she try farming in different regions, too. There is much in Sharon’s description that is evocative and familiar, but the seasonal rhythm is very different here. For example, I don’t rest all winter, that’s when I do heavy and hard chores outside, at least when it’s not raining. The peak of summer is for resting as much as you can… but the beans still have to be picked.

  3. #3 Bill Harshaw
    December 15, 2011

    There’s also the single versus family factor. Some farmers (Garrison Keillor’s Norwegian bachelor farmers, my uncle) live and work alone, which can be the way they like it or can drive you up the wall. At the other end of the continuum is the family of people who love farming ( but who may face obstacles in obtaining land for the young). And in the middle is the family with some dedicated farmers and some who want to leave the land as fast as possible.

  4. #4 Emily
    December 15, 2011

    The best bit of physical advice I’ve gotten regarding farming/gardening came from my yoga teacher, who observed that if you look at women in traditional farming cultures, they all have a lovely concave curve in their lower backs, even bending over to weed and plant. This has saved my back! The tendency is to “cat tilt” your pelvis – tucking your tail under and arching your back – as you bend over to weed. If you “dog tilt” – arch your pelvis the other way, like you’re trying to raise your tail over your back – it puts much less strain on the tendons and muscles where your spine and your pelvis join.

    And as with any exercise, stretch a bit, warm up, stretch some more, and stretch at the end of the day.

  5. #5 Ruben Anderson
    December 15, 2011

    At 40, I too was worried about my ability to handle the hard work. But now I am working one day a week on an organic farm. The farmer is 80 and has been working his two acres for over 25 years. The other regular volunteer on the farm is 86.

  6. #6 Laurel
    December 15, 2011

    Loved the description of your *schedule.*

  7. #7 Joyce
    December 16, 2011

    This is a great question, and a great post.

    I would say the most difficult thing about small-scale farming is that most of us have to have an outside job to create what they used to call “cash money.”

    It’s the not-farming that I find most difficult. I work mostly from home, which in many ways is ideal, but there’s always the pull of “Oh, I should be out with the goats” when I’m inside working, and “I’m really neglecting my work” when I’m out with the goats.

    I guess my point is that small farming is not a way to escape the ‘never enough time’ feeling, although hanging out with baby goats is a great way to hide from it for awhile!

    In addition, I enthusiastically agree with the wisdom of doing internships; I would have had a much harder time starting out if I hadn’t helped out a local farmer for a couple of years first.

    I also feel that unless you’re super-independent, a supportive partner is gold. Luckily, I have a golden partner!

    I second the comments regarding age and physical strength. I’m 51 and not particularly strong. I rely a lot on my partner for muscle, but I know that if I had to, I’d find ways to adapt. I recall reading a letter in Countryside Magazine by a woman who used a wheelchair much of the time, but nonetheless planted her own gardens and grew her own food, with minimal assistance from a part-time helper.

  8. #8 Gene
    December 16, 2011

    One season I kept meticulous records of how much time my wife and I put into doing two farmers markets from our 2.3 acre farm and it was 1500 hours. That was from March, when seedlings were started indoors and moved out to the greenhouse, to November, when the last root vegetables were harvested and garlic was planted. We don’t have livestock or hoophouses, and I didn’t count the time spent canning and freezing. No extra help. We’re doing a CSA now but it is probably still 1200+ hours per season. And we both have full-time jobs off the farm.

  9. #9 Jim Thomerson
    December 16, 2011

    When I had goats, in the spring, after shearing, we would put them in a trap pasture, maybe 200 acres. They would come in at night for feed and spend the night in the goat shed. Some nannies would not come in because they had had a kid. I would go out in trap and find them. Drag the kid in, with the nannie following along. Sometimes she would quit and go back to where she had kidded, and we would start over. One time, I was maybe 10 years old, there were five kids and nannies to get in. Took me a while as I could not drag all the kids at once. My nannies never had twins and always had them in the daytime. This was Angora goats in the late 1940s.

  10. #10 Mark N.
    December 17, 2011

    The days approaching the Winter solstice are the toughest, eh?

  11. #11 hannah's dad
    December 17, 2011

    I’m not sure exactly what is envisaged here, what constitues a ‘small scale farm’.
    We have what could be described as
    a ‘large vegetable garden’ which I’m suggesting could be enlarged in scale and function to what I suspect fits the bill of ‘a small scale farm’ [ssf].
    And the answer for us [me and my wife or her and her husband if you wish or maybe just us two, not counting the dog] is that the workload is pretty inconsequential.
    For these reasons:
    -we decide in advance how much work we are happy to put into the ssf.
    -we put a fair bit of time and effort into the initial planning and infrastructure [fences, plot borders, hose lines and taps, shaded area[s]] but once that is done the bulk of the physical work and large chunks of time is pretty much over
    -we maintain a routine of doing something brief most days [prepare some mulch/compost/weed a bit whatever] so it doesn’t become a major chore
    -the ‘real’ work time spent in the garden, eg start of season, plot preparation, planting etc is pleasant therefore by definition [ours] is not work. Its good exercise and enjoyable because of the promise of things to come. Ditto for season’s end.
    -we are fully organic and use no machinery even though we have such available
    -we have good neighbours – when we are away they look after our place and we return the favour.
    -they have chooks, we don’t, my wife can’t abide them, but we barter real eggs from next door [incidentally 'next door' is half a mile away]
    -the food tastes terrific

    So our answer to your question is “Not much, depends who you are and what you want….”

    By the way we also run a large scale irrigation nursery farm [5,000 trees], or did until recently, and I’m not calculating the time etc spent on that.

  12. #12 Amanda
    December 17, 2011

    When I left a good paying job in DC to move to Vermont and apprentice for a vegetable farmer there, I was completely prepared to fail. I was in bad shape and had never done real, physical labor in my life. I was pretty much beside myself with anxiety.

    It was a revelation, honestly. I loved it (except on the days that I hated it), and although I was never the fastest or most competent intern on the place, I held my own. Friends and family were shocked at how well and happy I looked. Two seasons later, my husband and I run a small vegetable CSA, and I finally understand what it’s like to really love your work. Go for it, Meg :)

  13. #13 Brian Jonker
    December 21, 2011

    How much work is small scale farming? Basically How much time do you have? In all seriousness there is always something further to do. More weeding..more learning…modifications to infrastructure (LOL notice I didnt say improvements:) more interaction with customers… evaluation of specific practices, plants, varieties, and expenses. This is not a complete list but just to give a general idea but is aimed more towards an owner.

    As to the physical aspect of the work. Fortunately the work starts slow with germination indoors and ramps up as the season progresses. Also you will learn small techniques to make many of your tasks easier such as an optimum grip and handle length for hoeing.

  14. #14 Greenpa
    December 22, 2011

    You have a QUIET season???? !!! Man, you lucky stiff! :-)

    You know that greenhouse you dream of having? We do. That’s why there’s no quiet season- so- beware of what you wish for!

    Your descriptions, and points, are great, as always.

    My one little addition for those contemplating it all- the small farm life is primarily the life of “being”; rather than the life of “doing”. If you are only happy when struggling for large goals, this can be difficult. If you are content to live and be, and can savor that- it can be wonderful. Each of us must find out for ourselves; no advice or lesson can do it.

  15. #15 Greg
    December 29, 2011

    Nicely written. Making a living farmings is a lot of work. I have been farming full time for about 15 years and now I’m looking to find some balance in the intensity of summer.

    Meg should try it out. Some people think it is something they want to do for a summer and love it, some think they want to farm and hate it. Every year someone quits because they can’t take it. And almost every year someone gets sucked into farming.

    Greg

  16. #16 Gail
    January 1, 2012

    I have lived on a small farm for 30 years in New Jersey, but I quit planting trees and everything else after 2008, because I realized that air pollution is killing vegetation. Instead of working outside I started writing a blog about how the background levels of tropospheric ozone are inexorably rising, and ways in which it is toxic to plants. The symptoms of damage are ubiquitous, so I take photographs of injured foliage and trees and post them as well.

    I would be very curious to know if you have noticed any decline in the quality or quantity of yield, or the health of trees, in the past few years. Organic farmers are particularly disadvantaged because they can’t use chemicals to boost growth, or to fend off the insects, diseases and fungus that attack plants weakened by ozone.

  17. #17 Greenpa
    January 5, 2012

    You have a QUIET season???? !!! Man, you lucky stiff! :-)

    You know that greenhouse you dream of having? We do. That’s why there’s no quiet season- so- beware of what you wish for!

    Your descriptions, and points, are great, as always.

    My one little addition for those contemplating it all- the small farm life is primarily the life of “being”; rather than the life of “doing”. If you are only happy when struggling for large goals, this can be difficult. If you are content to live and be, and can savor that- it can be wonderful. Each of us must find out for ourselves; no advice or lesson can do it.

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